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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We have an update for you now on the oil disaster in the Gulf. BP's best hope for stopping the oil leak from the Deepwater Horizon rig had been the top kill maneuver, and that failed over the weekend. The company has abandoned other options for actually capping the well. That leaves a plan, which is in the works now, to capture the spewing oil rather than to keep it underground. NPR's Richard Harris is back with us in the studio to explain what is happening.

And Richard, BP, is it making progress now on this latest plan to capture the oil?

RICHARD HARRIS: There is some progress, yes, Renee. And the first and crucial step of this operation was cutting through the bent-over riser pipe on the sea floor. And they did the first big cut last night. You can think of that as sort of trimming off the end of a tree limb in order to make it easier to work with the rest of it, and that they're sort of left with a pipe stub. And now they want a nice, clean cut on that stub. And the next step is to do that with a saw that uses a whirling wire coated with diamond cutting surfaces in order to do that. It's wrapped around the pipe.

And Admiral Thad Allen updated us on the progress this morning.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): We are in the process right now of trying to do the second fine cut with a diamond-wire saw. That saw blade is becoming stuck inside in the riser pipe. They're trying to maneuver the riser pipe to free it, or if they need to, they'll send another blade down. They're working that problem right now.

MONTAGNE: And that was Admiral Thad Allen. And Richard, presuming all of this works, they make the cut on this, what you called a tree limb - it's really something more like a straw, right?

HARRIS: Yeah. That's right.

MONTAGNE: I mean, it's hollow in the middle. What happens, then, with the oil spewing out of this?

HARRIS: Well, what will happen is more will come through, just the way when you un-kink a garden hose, more water comes through. Somewhat more will come through here. And the question is: How much more? Engineers believe most of what's stopping the flow in the oil is actually rubble that's down in the well and some of the junk inside the blowout preventer. So they're not expecting it to be an explosive increase, but BP says maybe it'll be a 10 percent increase. The federal government has looked at it and said it's more likely to be a 20 percent increase in the flow of oil.

MONTAGNE: And how long will that go on? The flow and the increase?

HARRIS: Well, that could go on for a day or two. It sort of depends upon on how quickly they can move forward with their plan. Because once they get this nice, clean cut, the next step is to try to install a collection attachment that has a big, rubber gasket on it on top of where they've cut the pipe. And that's connected to a pipe that goes all the way up to the surface. And the hope is that most of the oil and gas will go into that pipe, and they can offload it onto a ship - the oil.

MONTAGNE: How long is this system - which is makeshift - supposed to last?

HARRIS: Well, this is a stop-gap. And it's supposed to last until they can drill a new well, and that will be August at the earliest. Now, the new well -it's called a relief well. But what it's really supposed to do is intersect with a bottom of the existing, blown-out well. And if they can hit that old well, they can pump cement down there and permanently stop the oil inside that old well from flowing up any more.

MONTAGNE: And there isn't just the one relief well. There's a second, back-up relief well.

HARRIS: Right. In case the first one fails.

MONTAGNE: OK. So, added to all of that, we are now in hurricane season. What happens if a storm roars through? Will they all have to stop doing what they're doing?

HARRIS: Well, that is a major concern, because that does interrupt oil and gas activities in the Gulf. And they're - BP is working on plans about how to deal with that. Because if you do get this pipe flowing up this 5,000-foot - or, the oil flowing up this 5,000-foot pipe to the surface, you may need to shut that down in the event of a big storm. So BP is planning to build a secondary system that would have a flexible pipe near the surface. So a ship might be able to stay there during a storm and weather the wind and waves and so on, but still would be able to stay there and collect the oil. Otherwise, it's spilling back in the Gulf.

MONTAGNE: Richard, just one, last thing: BP, apparently, has given up on all other plans. It's what they're doing now, right? And these relief wells, which are way down the line, down through the summer. Which would - why have they given up on other plans that would cap the well and actually just stop it from flowing?

HARRIS: Right. They did have an idea of putting a valve on top of the well, or maybe another blowout preventer. But when they actually tried the top kill method, they were also collecting information about the condition of the well itself by looking at how much pressure it was withstanding. And it turns out, they got very nervous about it, what the condition of the well is underground. It's encased in steel, but it appears like it could be very leaky down there. And so they were concerned about, if they put a valve on it, all that would do would be forcing the oil and gas out through the sides of the well. And that would be an even bigger mess than they have now. They wouldn't be able to control it through a pipe.

So they've abandoned the effort to put a valve or another blowout preventer on here, and they're just hoping that they can capture enough of the oil now, and that they can also drill this relief well and put an end to it in August.

MONTAGNE: So this is a big learning experience in the middle of a huge disaster.

HARRIS: Yes, indeed.

MONTAGNE: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Thanks.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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